Gandhiji is the one great thinker of our times who, without ever intending to be so, has become the man for all seasons and all things to all men. So much so that the most fraudulent of our politicians and intellectuals can claim Gandhi for himself at any suitable time and for pushing any convenient theory.
– Abu Abraham, writing in 1988.
What do a prominent hawk and a well-known dissident activist have in common? K. Subrahmanyam, the hawk, lives and works in New Delhi. Once an adviser to governments, he now uses the columns of The Times of India to urge his countrymen to go nuclear, and stay nuclear. M.D. Nanjundaswamy, the activist, is based in Bangalore, two thousand miles to the south. Once a professor of law, he now heads a farmers´ organisation called the Kamataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, which mobilises peasants against exploitation by the city and by multinationals.
One is an establishment figure, the other a protest organiser. One moves in and out of the corridors of power, the other in and out of jails. These two men are separated by their styles of work and their ideologies, by their prejudices and by their affinities What could they possibly have in common?
A debate is underway on whether India should sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), an instrument promoted by the United States and designed to prohibit the further testing and manufacture of nuclear weapons. Somestrat-egists believe that India should sign, thereby easing the tension building up with its close neighbour and fellow nuclear threshold state, Pakistan. Others disagree, claiming that possession of the nuclear deterrent ´ alone can prevent Pakistan from advancing across the border.
As the argument proceeds, K. Subrahmanyam pulls out his trump card. Not to sign the CTBT, he argues, would be in the glorious Indian tradition of resistance to Western imperialism. To have atom bombs, and not to allow others to put curbs on their production and testing, would be “in consonance with the tenets of Gandhi”. It would, indeed, be “a Gandhian approach of non-cooperation with nuclear imperialism”. (The Times of India, 24 January 1996).
A parallel and in some ways more significant debate concerns the liberalisation of the Indian economy, and the recent moves to open it up to Western capital and multinational firms. Manmohan Singh, the finance minister and architect of these reforms, is the hero of millions of middle-class Indians, who hope that his initiatives will allow them to prosper and lift their country out of its stupefying poverty, indeed, to become the South Korea of the Subcontinent.
But Dr Singh is a villain to others, notably intellectuals and activists coming from a left-wing tradition, who think liberalisation will stifle indigenous industry and destroy indigenous agriculture, thus making India even more dependent on the West. This is why M.D. Nanjundaswamy has for some time been mobilising his Raitha Sangha against the entry of foreign firms. His first target was a seed-producing firm (Cargil), his second, a pharmaceutical company (W.R. Grace), his latest, Kentucky Fried Chicken or KFC, that stand-in for the American way of life.
The KFC restaurant in Bangalore, the first of a projected chain, is picketed consistently by farmers of the Raitha Sangha. In a daring action, some 200 activists enter the restaurant, smash window panes and furniture, yell at the customers and chefs, scatter leaflets, and depart.
Nanjundaswamy, who planned the raid but was not physically part of it, calls a press conference. The attack on KFC, he says, “was just to tell the entire world that multinational corporations will not be tolerated here.” He then explains why they chose 30 January for the action: “This is how we observe Mahatma Gandhi´s death anniversary, to tell the whole world Gandhiji is still alive.” (Deccan Herald, 31 January 1996).
The Foreign Hand
In differing ways, and for completely different ends, Subrahmanyam and Nanjundaswamy illustrate the point made by the cartoonist and columnist Abu Abraham, quoted above. Gandhi has his uses, or misuses. The two exemplars deftly twist the seer out of context to justify their actions. True, as Subrahmanyam points out, Gandhi was a celebrated fighter against imperialism, but would he have regarded Indian scientists who manufactured bombs as anti-colonial patriots? Hardly likely, since the Mahatma once remarked that “he who invented the atom bomb has committed the greatest sin in the world of science”.
True, as Nanjudaswamy insists, Gandhi was a passionate believer in swadeshi, economic self-reliance, but would he have countenanced the issuing of threats and the destruction of property? Impossible, for it would be inconsistent with his belief in non-violence, in the intimate connection between means and ends.
Gandhi is for most Indians the ultimate touchstone of moral authority, playing a part in public discourse roughly equivalent to that of Thomas Jefferson in the United States or the Quran in Islamic countries. It is thus hardly surprising that he is quoted on every side of every major debate in India today. What is distinctive about the contemporary invocations of Gandhi, however, is that they are almost always attached to attacks on the West. The strategist hawk and the fanners´ leader are at one in this sense too, using Gandhi only to abuse the West.
Attacks on the West have, it appears, gathered force with every passing year of India´s independence. Forty-eight years after the British departed, the theme of Western domination never strays far from the pages of our newspapers. Right-wing Hindu conservatives who worry about the corrosion of our traditional culture by MTV and its ilk, left-wing nationalists who believe foreign capital will undermine development and increase poverty, mandarins in government who are concerned about the possibility of US political domination in a new unipolar world—all believe that a “foreign hand” is at work, undermining the unity, self-reliance and integrity of India. The colour of this foreign hand is always white, although its precise nationality is sometimes hard to establish.
Indigenism is rampant in India today, as evidenced by the fashion codes of my own tribe, the intellectuals. There was a time when most were Marxists. Today, most of us are multiculturalists. The categories of culture and civilisation have replaced the categories of class and capitalism as the prisms by which scholars and social scientists view the world. Where there is scholarship, there is polemic, and nowhere is this shift more clearly marked than in the changing vocabulary of abuse.
Thus, in the golden age of Marxism, a writer one disagreed with was dismissed as a lackey of capitalism or a running dog of imperialism. Now, in the brown epoch of multiculturalism, the offenders are accused of being Eurocentric or of exhibiting cultural arrogance. The class struggle between capitalists and workers has effortlessly been transformed into a ´civilisational´ struggle between the West and the Rest.
There is, in this respect, a curious affinity between bitter ideological opponents—and not just in India. In the world of American academics, for instance, Harvard´s Samuel Huntington, shouting for the West, and Columbia´s Edward Said, screaming for the Rest, both seem to view civilisations as exclusive, oppositional, largely incapable of learning from each other.
Those who think in these broad civilisational terms easily place Gandhi east of Suez, in an ideological and physical sense. Thus, British Tories berate him for not recognising the superiority of their culture, while Indian indigenists celebrate him for offering what they think is a ciilisational alternative to Western domination. Tories and indigenists both fall back on what is perhaps the most famous of Gandhi stories. On a visit to London in 1931, for a conference on determining India´s political future, Gandhi was asked by a British journalist what he thought of Western civilisation. “1 think it would be a good idea,” he replied. Beyond this witticism, it might be thought that there is good reason for the indigenists to hope that Gandhi would be on their side. For, in his politics, he worked tirelessly to free his country from foreign rule, in his economics he promoted swadeshi, hand-spun khadi over Manchester mill-made cotton, and in his ethics he drew deep nourishment from the Vaishnava traditions of his native Gujarat. It is thus that Indian politicians and intellectuals, fraudulent or otherwise, when looking for an indigenous alternative to Western imperialism, run straight to Gandhi.
Was Gandhi, then, a quintessentially Indian, even Hindu, thinker? Karl Marx´s most famous disciple, V.I. Lenin, once remarked that his master´s thought was a synthesis of German philosophy, British political economy, and French historiography. I rather suspect that a similar inventory of influences would reveal Gandhi´s thought to be a distinctively Indian blend of Russian populism (via Leo Tolstoy), American radical democracy (through Henry David Thoreau), and English anti-industrialism (from John Ruskin).
This Hindu mahatma´s intellectual debts were most certainly Western in origin. What´s more, he said so himself—witness the guide to further reading appended at the end of his best-known work, Hind Swaraj (1909): six books by Tolstoy, two each of Thoreau´s and Ruskin´s, works by Plato, Mazzini, Edward Carpenter and others. The only Indians on the list are Dadabhai Naoroji and Romesh Chander Dutt, who wrote not on the glories of Hindu culture but about the economic effects of British rule in India.
Testimony to Gandhi´s cultural broad-mindedness, and his love of many things Western, might be found in his close friendships with Englishmen and South Africans, in his loving engagement with Christianity, or in his concern for the survival of England and English civilisation in the darkest days of the Second World War. Some of this is well documented, but I now want to offer as clinching proof a little-known story that has, to my knowledge, never found its way into the Gandhi anthologies and Gandhi biographies.
The dramatis personae are an Indian, Yusuf Meherally, and an American, Bertram D. Wolfe. Both were well known in their day, but seem to have been forgotten in ours. Meherally, was a freedom fighter, founding-member of the Congress Socialist Party, and sometime Mayor of Bombay, and Wolfe, an early, brave and rigorous left-wing critic of Stalinism, the writer of Three Who Made a Revolution and other books.
In 1946, Yusuf Meherally was in the United States. He was dying of tuberculosis, and had come to rest from his labours in India. His past ten years had been spent mostly in prison, yet Bertram Wolfe, his host in New York, found his friend in an unusually mellow mood towards the British.
On earlier visits, Meherally had been full of righteous indignation about the evils of colonialism, but this time around, he was even willing to offer the British some praise. Wolfe was puzzled at this change, this 180-degree shift in tone and attitude. He asked for an explanation. “They are leaving,” answered Meherally. “Any day now, we will be free. Gandhiji says that now that they are going, we must remember the best of British civilisation—the rule of law, their sense of fair play, and so on. Remember it, and keep it.”
Half a century later, this advice seems as sensible as when it was first offered. I am no partisan of MTV and KFC, but I do know that the best of Western civilisation is still on offer, and we are yet to grasp it. The most humane of their governments, say Finland and Norway, treat the poor and women more fairly. The best of their scientists, in Germany and the United States, turn their research to practical consequence for human betterment—ours accumulate strings of research papers (many of dubious quality) and chairmanships of committees. Their industrialists donate their surplus money to foundations funding the arts, ours put it away in Swiss bank accounts.
Meanwhile, what is distressing is that those Indians who admire the West do so for the wrong reasons. Many of us prefer Madonna to Ravi Shankar, Danielle Steele to R.K. Narayan, T-shirts to kurtas, Kentucky Fried to tandoori. Professionals warm to the artefacts of a high-consumption lifestyle, the vacuum cleaners and the Peugeots, but ignore Western inventions that are relevant to a society such as ours. No one looks for where we can properly emulate the West—that is, in crafting public institutions that capably, consistently, impersonally, serve the society they are part of.
They have law courts where the judges cannot be bought; universities where the teachers take classes and students are not perennially on strike; systems of transportation that are safe and reliable; hospitals where rich and poor alike are served with the same courtesy and promptness.
A large, mature democracy, an old, self-renewing culture—this is what India is thought by some to be. Does it not then possess the confidence, the dignity, to take what it wants from the West, and quietly ignore the rest? That, precisely, is what Japan has done, what Singapore has put into practice. Back in the 1940s, Yusuf Meherally and Mahatma Gandhi knew when it was time to stop talking of ´Western imperialism´ and start thinking of what India could borrow from this most powerful and dynamic of modern civilisations. We, who have never seen the inside of a British prison, do not.